PART 1: WATER MANAGEMENT IN TIMES OF DROUGHT
On November 18th, we had the chance to chat with Ebbing van Tuinen from the Dutch engineering firm Witteveen+Bos. W+B mission is to advise governments and other stakeholders on how to become more climate resilient, include more biodiversity and sustainable energy provisions in their upcoming projects.
Ebbing is responsible for Water Management projects, from implementing fish ladders in the Dutch waterscape to allow fish migration, to designing future plans for water management in rural areas.
This discussion took place in the context of a new research project we are working on, Drought in Waterland, that is situated in the Veluwe region (NL). The Veluwe region “can be seen as a sand box in which water retention is low.” Our aim for this project is to explore how green infrastructure and technologies (agroforestry, food forestry) can be used to intervene in the regional water cycle and food production.
Ebbing told us that although the summers will become dryer in the future, annual rainfalls are expected to stay the same in the Netherlands and the water retention under the Veluwe area will possibly even increase. This was an interesting counterpoint knowing that global forecasts predict meteorological drought as a result of global warming. The challenge here is to retain water in order to be able to use it when and where we need it in order to maintain safety and agricultural productivity.
Ebbing introduced us to one of the potential answers to the challenge of rainwater and fresh water management that he has worked on: the Panorama Waterland project. It aims to find eternal sources of clean drinking water in the Sallandse Heuvelrug region. Part of this transition is changing how the landscape is used, and especially how agriculture is practiced, both to retain water but also to minimize chemical inputs and run off from the farms into the water. One of the unanswered questions we had was about the current crop / animal mix and how this might change under a no-chemical input transition. Will farmers plant the same crops and change their processes, or will a new species mix be required? Nature inclusive farming can be pursued in many ways, but food forestry seems like a fairly complex transition that so far only happens on a very small scale in the Netherlands. There are many drivers of change, and steps for making change in agroecological systems, and we need to keep returning to what attracts ourselves and others to the food forestry and agroforestry, as well as the very real limits and challenges to that model.
As a low-lying and flood-prone country, the Netherlands is at the front line in fighting against the rise of sea level and the Dutch have become experts in protecting their lands against floods. But they are now confronted with an additional challenge : drought and fresh water shortages.
Vitens, the leading water distribution company in the Netherlands, is now facing another extremely dry year and has decided to team up with landscape architects to create a new spatial concept with water retention at its core. This also means that the concerned lands will be pesticide-free to ensure groundwater safety, which might cause anxiety for farmers who would have to adapt to a whole new farming system.
Do we need new ways of farming that are more suited for water retention friendly forms of agriculture?
Collaboration seems like the way to go in terms of finding resilient strategies for rainwater retention and groundwater use. We need to find a better balance between human activities and the natural environment. There are many individuals, groups and institutions working on these topics in the Netherlands including the Louis Bolk institute and the Wageningen University and Research.
PART 2: VELUWE WATERBOARD
A few organisations work around this topic and we had the chance to exchange with Teun Spek, who works for the Veluwe Waterboard, responsible for water management and groundwater system in this area. Teun was born in the Veluwe and for the last 8 years, he has been trying to understand the Veluwe by taking actual measurements in the fields rather than relying only on predictive models.
According to Teum the market for biological products is slow-growing in the Netherlands, and so there is little financial incentive for farmers who may not be able to sell their food at the higher price which is required as they move away from chemical inputs. Additionally, food forest projects tend to be very small and successful ones connect up with fine dining restaurants to have a stable income. It sounded like many flavours of non-industrial farming need to supplement their income with education, health or other initiatives in order to stay in business.
One of the main drivers of change and transition to fossil-fuel free farming is the farmers themselves. Policymakers have tools to help farmers who want to make a change, much more than being able to entice or convince older farmers, many who have been farming the same way for 20 years, and may feel they don’t have enough time or desire to make a transition. Therefore it is quite important to engage younger farmers who are energetic to make a change, especially that they can see in their lifetime. For example, going from high-input to circular agriculture takes a very long time, up to 5 to 7 years to get nourished soil back, and in this time very little income may be coming in to sustain the farm.
One tool the Waterboard can use to help farmers with that transition is buying land and re-selling it at a discounted price—but with a set of constraints (no chemicals, bring the water level up,…). Although the Waterboard is often confronted to the reluctance of the old generation of farmers, the new generation is more willing to change their practice and more and more farmers are going for that transition, from dairy to health and horticulture farms. This also means re-orienting the perceived consumers of one’s work. In the past many Dutch farms were optimized for intensity, efficiency and export. However, a more circular farm economy will have shorter loops, and the eaters may be much closer to where the food is produced.
“In the Veluwe, there is an unbalance in nutrients. We need to bring a bigger diversity, reintroduce old varieties of grains and crops, as well as more integration between people and the forest. In history, there was more connection between farming and people in the Veluwe, when we didn’t have artificial nitrogen. People went to work in forests where they would use the bark of oaks for leather production.”
In painting a picture of the past, present and future of farming in the Veluwe Teun spoke of many kinds of difference and diversity including soil types, plants and habitat. He started to articulate one model of land use where places in the Veluwe that have shallow clay & iron deposits could be used as food sheds for birds, so that game birds could eat in these richer areas.
This leaves us plenty of space to think about new kinds of more resilient and nature inclusive land use and farming practices. Unlike organic certification, which has become very defined and prescriptive, nature inclusive farming is still in a more early open stage. We chatted about the 4 levels that have started to be articulated- from the most basic level of adding habitat on farms in the form of hedges—to much more intensive interventions and transitions. Over time, these may become more defined, but for now Nature Inclusive farming is at a stage where many experiments can be conducted, but where it can be somewhat difficult to measure or communicate to technical audiences (policymakers and distant consumers).
Some local initiatives are already in place to provide new insights in the field of sustainable and climate-friendly soil management such as soil passports and Grain Happiness, we know the way to go.
“If you have water, you can do something.”